KEALAKEKUA BAY — Adventures in Paradise guide Lalu Gardner was taking a group out on a morning kayak tour of Kealakekua Bay on Tuesday when he heard a blood-curdling scream.
He broke away from the group to investigate, paddling his vessel toward the distress call coming from an area close to shore. That’s when he saw blood in the water.
“She was about 30 feet from shore, blood everywhere. A wave came, and she got swept back to shore,” said Gardner.
The woman appeared to have been bitten by a shark on her back and upper thigh as she swam in the bay.
Once on the rocky shoreline north of Hikiau Heiau, Gardner said bystanders helped the woman out of the water and waited with her until medics arrived.
But the tour guide’s job wasn’t finished.
He paddled back to where people were swimming with a pod of dolphins and warned them to get out of the water. Then, he landed his group in an area at Kaawaloa Flats near the Captain Cook Monument, where they waited, along with another tour group to be taken back to Napoopoo Landing by Hawaii Fire Department Ocean Safety personnel.
The victim, a 26-year-old woman visiting the island, was taken in serious condition by medics to Kona Community Hospital. She suffered flesh wounds to her lower back and right hip area.
Hours later, she was upgraded to stable condition, according to Judy Donovan, hospital spokeswoman.
“She has requested privacy for today and this evening,” Donovan said around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.
After the apparent attack, the bay was immediately closed, including Manini Beach on its southern boundary.
At the scene Tuesday morning were Napoopoo residents Kathryn and Scott Williams, Curtis Tyren and Jill Meyers, who said they kayak and paddleboard to the monument daily.
They had been in the bay, oblivious to the shark attack that had just occurred, when the Hawaii County helicopter buzzed over them, trying to get their attention. But they couldn’t hear or figure out what the co-pilot was trying to convey, until he made the universal signal of a shark, putting his hands together above his head, symbolizing a fin.
The four tried to get back to Manini Beach, where they launched, but the helicopter kept trying to lead them in a different direction because a 10-foot tiger shark was following them.
“They were buzzing pretty low. I think they were trying to get the shark away from us,” said Katherine Williams.
The shark continued to follow them as they headed back to the monument. The chopper then directed them to the pali, or cliff, where they were able to safely get ashore.
“Nobody has ever been bit here,” said Katherine Williams. “We paddle here every day. We know they (sharks) are there, but we’ve never been scared.”
Seventeen other people who had kayaked to the Kaawaloa Flats near the monument and became stranded because of the reported attack were shuttled by Ocean Safety personnel via an HFD Jet Ski to Napoopoo Landing. Their kayaks were also towed in.
After the incident, Hawaii County’s Chopper 1 performed an aerial survey of the area and spotted the 10-foot tiger in the bay. However, officials said that based on the injuries the woman suffered, they believe the attacking shark was not a tiger, but possibly a reef shark.
The Hawaii Police Department said a witness described the shark as having a gray tip.
Officials also noted that snorkelers in the bay have reported seeing more sharks in the area. They speculate it could be related to dolphins giving birth in the area.
Kealakekua Bay will remain closed until at least noon today, in accordance with the 24-hour closure that is standard protocol after an attack. Shark warning signs were posted.
Chopper 1 will do another aerial survey about 11 a.m. today.
Based on what is seen, DLNR will determine whether the bay can be reopened.
Colin Cornforth, of Captain Zodiac Raft and Snorkel Adventures, said the company changed its itinerary Tuesday in the wake of the incident. He noted that the reported attack was at the “very far south side of the bay,” and not in front of Captain Cook monument.
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park, located in South Kona, is an important site in Hawaii’s history as the location where the first extensive contact between Hawaiians and Westerners took place with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1779.
“We as a company diverted our trips today. We’re looking into alternative trips,” Cornforth said. “We wanted to make sure people know that no one was attacked in front of Captain Cook’s monument, which is a popular snorkeling area.”
This was the ninth shark encounter reported by state officials this year, including one that was fatal, The Associated Press reported Tuesday afternoon. A 65-year-old man from California died after a shark bit him while he was swimming off a Maui beach park in May. Last week, a surfer in turbid water off Oahu’s west coast escaped injuries when a shark chomped on his surfboard.
On the Big Island alone, according to West Hawaii Today archives, there’s been at least two shark encounters this year.
On April 23, a 65-year-old woman suffered a bite to her upper right thigh after dipping her foot in the water while kayaking off Keawaiki, south of Anaehoomalu Bay.
In March, a man also paddling in the Keawaiki area encountered a shark, but was unable to recall if being knocked out of the canoe was the cause of a laceration to his right calf or if the injury was caused directly by the roughly 12-foot shark.
In early April, a shark reportedly snatched the body of a missing opihi picker as a Hawaii County helicopter tried to pluck his body from waters off North Kohala.
Shark sightings have closed beaches several times, most recently Laaloa Beach Park, also known as Magic Sands, on Aug. 1.
According to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, there were three incidents reported last year and five in 2017. There were 14 encounters statewide in 2013, four of which were off Hawaii Island.
West Hawaii Today reporters Nancy Cook Lauer and Chelsea Jensen contributed to this report.